Thursday, 10 February 2011

Making a Rare Connection in East Java

The Suramadu Bridge

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe 04/01/11

“You know, I used to work breaking stones,” says Sutia, a 25-year-old Madurese woman, as she reclines in the shade of her little tented cafe beside the approach road to the Suramadu Bridge. “Really, just that, just breaking stones into little pieces for building. Now I have a warung. Nice, right?”
A steady stream of cars, buses and bikes roars past, heading south for Surabaya from the Madura hinterland. Every so often a vehicle pulls over beside the long rank of warungs and souvenir stalls, and a gaggle of perspiring sightseers clamber out, squinting in the hot sun, looking for a length of Madurese batik, a bowl of soto, or a kitsch tee shirt commemorating the enormous bridge they are about to cross.
Eying the potential customers, Sutia grins. “Madura is getting business from Suramadu,” she says.
Sutia and dozens of her compatriots from the villages around Kwanyar are reaping the rewards of an unlikely little tourism boom, a windfall of one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in Indonesia in recent years – the Suramadu Bridge, 5.4 kilometers of steel and concrete stitching two of the archipelago’s most uneasy neighbors tightly together.

The great green loadstone of Java and its unruly outlier, the long, low island of Madura, are separated by a narrow channel. But the gulf between the two islands is enormous, for Madura has a decidedly unenviable reputation.
In centuries past it was a wellspring of rebel princes who ransacked royal Javanese courts or turned mercenary for the Dutch East India Company. In more recent years economic migrants from its poor, dry countryside have crossed the straits to bring their gritty work ethic, their tasty soto and sate to towns and cities across the archipelago. But according to myths touted by many Indonesians, especially those from Java, the people of Madura are uncouth, uncultured, and possibly dangerous. Their homeland has always been a place to avoid at all costs.
But in June 2009 all that changed with the opening of the long planned, long delayed Suramadu Bridge. Comprising 28,000 tons of steel and 600,000 tons of steel alloy, and requiring an estimated outlay of Rp4.7 trillion, the bridge joins the northeast suburbs of Surabaya to the south coast of Madura (the name – Suramadu – is a contraction of Surabaya and Madura).
Suramadu was intended to encourage economic development in Madura, which was previously connected to the outside world only by rickety, rusty ferries. But the bridge is such a striking piece of engineering – with enormous suspension spans and a fine view from the apex – that it has become a tourist attraction in its own right. And with travelers from Surabaya and beyond now making tentative weekend outings across the water to discover that all those awful stories about Madura were wild exaggerations, locals have experienced a business bonanza.
Within days of the bridge opening to traffic the first stalls had sprung up along the sides of the four-lane northern approach road that connects the crossing to the nearby town of Bangkalan. Now, 18 months later, there’s a linear city of tented cafes and stalls stretching some two kilometers inland on both sides of the highway.

A little way up the road from Sutia’s warung a 34-year-old local man called Ayub is minding his stall. “If you come here on Sunday it’s so crowded,” he says; “there are tours from Surabaya, from Central Java. There was even a tour from Lombok the other day.” According to Ayub some of these travelers are heading for the sacred Muslim tombs at Bangkalan and Sumenep; a few might even be venturing for the untouched beaches and beautiful countryside of the island’s far northeast. “But most of them just want to look at the bridge. They come across, turn around and go back,” he says.
All of the stalls are owned by people from the immediate vicinity, and the whole network has been set up informally.
“You don’t need to pay anything to build a stall here,” says Ayub’s friend, a young woman called Juli; “this is the people’s land!”
And with minimal outlay on a few lengths of bamboo and a few strips of tarpaulin, a whole new world of opportunity has opened.
“Locals here used to work as various things,” says Ayub; “some were farmers, some had no job; a lot emigrated.” Ayub himself spent two years working in Malaysia, another two years as a food hawker in Jakarta, and more time crewing a cargo boat plying the waters of the Java Sea. But now, with a wife and two children in a village within walking distance of his new stall, he has happily come home. “Suramadu gave me that chance,” he says.
Outside more shiny SUVs and are pulling up. Housewives from Malang and families from Sidoarjo are bargaining over take-home trinkets.
“Java people used to be scared of Madura,” says Ayub, “because they never came here, they didn’t know. It used to be rare for anyone to come here without an important reason because it was slow and expensive. It cost more than Rp100,000 for a bus on the ferry; it’s only Rp60,000 now. They can come just for a look, so they know Madurese people aren’t so bad!”

The only losers have been the hawkers who once worked the vehicle ferries that slithered between Surabaya’s Tanjung Perak port, and the old gateway to Madura at Kamal, several kilometers west of the bridge. A few ferries still make the crossing, but traffic has slowed to a trickle and some of these traders have shifted their attention to Suramadu, and now wander between the stalls as they used to ply the decks of the ferries.
The prime spots have long been snapped up, but the expansion continues with new warungs popping up far inland. According to locals both sides of the road have their advantages – the inbound northern side is where most visitors stop to eat, but the outbound southern side is the favored spot for souvenir shopping and photo opportunities.

A kilometer from the bridge on that southern flank, where the road rises over the first bank of limestone hills, stands Pak Imam’s warung. Twelve months ago his was the final stall, but today it merely marks the halfway point of the strip. Pak Imam, who worked as a motorbike taxi driver in a nearby village before the bridge opened, has watched the burgeoning city of stalls grow around his recently refurbished warung where he sells tea, coffee, and traditional Madurese soto – yellow soup with rice and meat.
“Madura used to be an isolated place,” Pak Imam says. “The people here didn’t know anything; we were just farmers – or fishermen if we lived by the sea. But now we have the bridge we will know about the world; we won’t be ignorant anymore.”
From the threshold of the warung, with its rickety bamboo benches, steaming soto cauldron, and luridly colored soft drinks, the high-rises of central Surabaya show through the haze to the south. Pak Imam, noting the speed of development that has met the arrival of the bridge, acknowledges the potential downsides.
“Of course, if Madura becomes like Surabaya there will be traffic jams and pollution and we’ll all be stressed like city people,” he says, “but if nothing changed we wouldn’t know anything and we’d just be farmers and fishermen.
“There’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. What I mean is nothing is all good or all bad; every good thing brings some bad with it, but as far as I’m concerned this bridge is mostly good, not just for Madura – for everyone...”

© Tim Hannigan 2010

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